Sunday 1st December 2019
There was a time when Oxford was the oft quoted example of head-to-head quality competition between two major bus companies as each operator aimed for a high standard of service to attract custom.
Oxford’s bus market matured after a statutory partnership deal led to a coordinated network so its fallen to Southampton to take on the mantle of England’s most contested bus city.
Bus competition is nothing new to the south coast city – the upstart Solent Blue Line was an early newcomer taking on the mighty municipal owned Southampton City Transport in 1987 shortly after deregulation before it expanded significantly by taking over the Southampton based operations of Hampshire Bus enabling Stagecoach to famously make a financial killing on selling that Company’s former bus garage and bus station in the city.
The ensuing decades have seen Southampton City Transport sold to its employees in 1993 then on to First Bus in 1997 with consistent shedding of a traditionally complex municipally run route network into a slimmed down core now marketed under a modern brand of CityRed.
Meanwhile Solent Blue Line (part of Southern Vectis) sold out to Go-Ahead, rebranded certain routes, and then the whole network, as Bluestar and slowly expanded by taking on routes and parts of routes progressively given up by First Bus.
The consequence being many areas and bus corridors in Southampton now have both red and blue buses, sometimes via different route patterns, sometimes running head-to-head.
The twists and turns of route changes in recent years are too complex to record here but I was intrigued by announcements from both companies a couple of months ago of ‘exciting new services as a result of customer feedback’ (aka ‘we’re going to try and gain competitive market share in another area’).
I decided to take a trip over to Southampton yesterday and see what’s occurring.
As on previous visits I was impressed to see clear information for both companies provided at bus stops and in shelters with departure times and posters.
Unlike other towns with bus competition, in Southampton information always appears very orderly and organised.
Bus stop flags are also clear and well presented, which is not always the case in competitive situations.
However, there were some intriguing inconsistencies in route presentation …
…. and I was puzzled by quite a number of missing flags around the city, replaced by temporary signs affixed to poles with cable ties.
The new competitive incursions that caught my attention were introduced ten weeks ago on 22nd September and have all the hallmarks of ‘tit-for-tat’ spoilers.
As usual in such circumstances where areas and corridors end up being over bussed for the numbers travelling, neither operator can be experiencing improved margins; but meanwhile passengers are certainly enjoying higher frequencies – and for seniors like me who don’t have to worry about brand loyalty by having an operator specific ticket, it felt like a real luxury yesterday to hop from one operator to another checking out the product on offer.
As befits these two operators, both equal each other on quality. Vehicles are clean and comfortable; well presented with smart attractive branding both outside and inside with pleasing decor and informative cove panels.
Drivers were also all pleasant and helpful. The standard of driving was faultless.
Clear next stop announcements are made and displayed by both operators; wi-fi is available and Bluestar have usb sockets.
I couldn’t source a First Bus CityRed timetable book in the city – last time I picked one up from the main library – but I found all the information I needed easily online including a helpful network map before I left home.
Commendably Bluestar have a city centre Travel Shop which is well stocked with timetable leaflets and books for neighbouring networks run by ‘more’ and Hampshire County Council produced books for Romsey and Eastleigh/Hedge End. There’s also a book for the rather strangely numbered route network Bluestar run on behalf of the University of Southampton branded as Unibus which is open to all passengers.
Personally I’d prefer to see a timetable book rather than individual route leaflets for Bluestar’s network too, but perhaps it’s a reflection of the instability of the network due to the developing competition that’s a factor here. If so, it doesn’t inspire long term confidence.
I’d also like to see a printed map for the Bluestar network combining the detailed route map of Southampton (above) and the extended area map showing fare zones as shown on the Travel Shop front window (below).
This latest competitive spat involves Bluestar introducing a new route 19 into one of First Bus’s heartland areas in the east of the city – Thornhill – replicating First Bus CityRed route 3 which runs from there into the city centre and to the western suburbs.
Thornhill already has high frequency Bluestar route 18 running ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes) via Bitterne to the city centre and then out to Millbank in the west of the city. This route saw an investment in a fleet of smart new dual-door Enviro 200 buses a year ago making quite an impact. It turns round at Eastpoint – a sub-area of Thornhill relinquished by First Bus a few years ago.
City Red 3 also runs ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays) with Volvo Wright bodied Eclipse single decks with 2+1 seating in the front half and leather seats, and operates from Thornhill Fairfax Court via Sholing and Woolston to the city centre before continuing cross-city to Lord’s Hill.
Bluestar 19 runs every fifteen minutes with a promise of an increased ten minute frequency in the ‘New Year’. Rather than running cross-city, as CityRed 3 does, it turns round at the Central Station.
I took a ride on both a Bluestar 19 and a CityRed 3 and loadings were pretty much split according to which bus had arrived first along the route save for a minority of passengers who clearly had a loyalty branded ticket for one company or the other and waited for their favoured bus.
In retaliation for the Bluestar 19 incursion into Thornhill, First Bus began running a new CityRed 1 between the city centre, Totton and the residential area of Calmore to the west of the city also from 22nd September.
Totton had been exclusively served by Bluestar routes 11 and 12 as well as route 6 (on its way to Lymington) after First Bus withdrew from Totton some years ago. The 11 and 12 provide a combined 10 minute frequency to Totton with the 11 continuing every 20 minutes to West Totton and the 12 every 20 minutes to Calmore.
New CityRed 1 runs every 10 minutes on Mondays to Fridays to Calmore significantly trouncing the Bluestar 12’s twenty minute frequency but CityRed 1 also drops to every 20 minutes on Saturdays albeit cynically timetabled to be 3 minutes ahead of the 12.
Interestingly First Bus drop frequencies on a number of CityRed routes on Saturdays compared to Mondays to Fridays.
On my ride out to Totton and around Calmore on a CityRed 1 we picked up passengers waiting with no one hanging back for the Bluestar 12 running three minutes behind us but when I switched on to the 12 for the ride back from Calmore in the loop arrangement around the estate, we played cat and mouse for a while having caught up the 1 and split the load equally.
From Totton back to the city the CityRed went ahead as the 12 waited its scheduled departure 3 minutes behind.
Both Thornhill and Calmore are euphemistically called ‘good bus territories’ to describe their demographics but I doubt there’ll be enough new passenger generation to maintain margins at sustainably profitable levels as a result of the higher frequencies now provided following this latest upping of competition between these two bus company giants.
I also took a ride on a frequent Bluestar 18 to Millbrook (another ‘good bus territory’ residential area in the west of Southampton) which is hotly contested by CityRed 2 running every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays and every 10 minutes on Saturdays.
It was much the same pattern as in Thornhill and Calmore with the first bus arriving picking up waiting passengers save for a few with loyalty tickets for one operator or the other.
Not surprisingly ticket prices offer good value, and are broadly comparable with inevitable “promotional” bargains. For example to Thornhill and Millbrook, which are in the ‘Southampton City’ zone for Bluestar a day ticket is £3.40, and to Calmore (in the ‘City Zone Plus”) it’s £3.70. A single from either Thornhill or Millbrook to the city centre is a bargain at just £2 and from Calmore it’s £3. A ‘Southampton City’ zone weekly is just £9.
A Day ticket within the CityReds ‘Southampton Zone” is £3.50 and £9 for a week.
There is an all operator SolentGo ticket (“from A to B to sea”) costing £5 for a day’s travel in the Southampton City zone, but a pricey £20 for a week – meaning it’s currently cheaper to buy a weekly ticket from both Bluestar and First Bus than the combined ticket, albeit you can also use the inter-urban routes within Southampton run by Xelabus using the latter.
As mentioned above, the presentation of buses is to a high standard – I only noticed two gremlins on yesterday’s visit (which is very good going compared to other places I visit)…
… and these are more than made up for by the welcome abundance of positive messages about using buses at bus stops and on buses.
Inevitably local media reports have woken up to what’s happening and as usual local politicians don’t really know what to make of it all.
New Forest Councillor Harrison is downbeat about the new competition reckoning the extra route “adds nothing for passengers” but goes on to conclude “one bus company will be driven out of business, the other will have a monopoly and we all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice”.
So I’m not sure whether Councillor Harrison favours giving passengers a choice or not!
Ironically Bluestar is part of Go SouthCoast which is well used to bus competition, experiencing it in both its main urban areas – Southampton and Bournemouth – while it also trades under a monopoly on the Isle of Wight – where, uniquely, passengers enjoy a comprehensive bus service throughout Christmas Day – so perhaps we don’t “all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice” after all.
Meanwhile back in Southampton recent years have brought many changes to bus competition in the city and 2019 has seen futher interesting developments. Riding around the network and seeing the numbers travelling yesterday, I suspect there’ll be more developments to come in 2020 if Go-Ahead and First Bus want to see those elusive sustainable margins.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.